|Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has said the freeze on settlements was a one-time gesture [EPA]|
Just three weeks after Israel lifted its 10-month freeze on most new settlement building, two reports say that settlers have already begun the construction of hundreds of new homes in the West Bank.
An Associated Press (AP) survey, published on Thursday, found that more than 500 homes have started being built since September 26, while Peace Now, an Israeli settlement watchdog group, puts the figure at more than 600.
The AP total of 544 home in three weeks reflects a rate of construction that is four times faster than in the last two years.
The actual number is likely to be even higher, since when officials provided a range, AP used the lowest figure.
The figure also did not include 133 apartments a contractor said he was building in three settlements, because he did not say how many were already started.
Hagit Ofran, an official from Peace Now, whose report will be released next week, told the BBC on Thursday that the homes are in varying stages of construction.
“In some places, it is only levelling the ground that has started and in others, it’s the very foundation that is now being dug,” said Ofran.
Aliza Herbst, a spokeswoman for the settler group Yesha Council, said about two-thirds of post-freeze work is preliminary and could be halted if the freeze is renewed.
Many homes are going up in areas that under practically any peace scenario would become part of a Palestinian state, a trend that could doom US-brokered peace talks.
AP: Number of new settlement homes
Benyamin area: 200
Beit Arieh: 25
Har Adar: 20
Har Hebron: 50
Itamar: At least 3
Karmei Tzur: 56
Kedumim: At least 12
Kiryat Arba: At least 22
Oranit: At least 3
“This figure is alarming and is another indicator that Israel is not serious about the peace process, which is supposed to be about ending the occupation,” said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas’, the president of the Palestinian Authority, self-rule government in the West Bank.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has played down the new construction, saying it “has no real effect on the map of a possible [peace] agreement”.
However, the renewed settlement construction has already jeopardised peace talks relaunched only last month, with the Palestinians threatening to walk away if the freeze is not extended.
Robert Serry, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace process, issued a statement on Thursday calling the new construction “alarming”.
“Renewed settlement construction, which is illegal under international law, runs contrary to the international community’s repeated appeals to the parties to create conditions conducive to negotiations, and will only further undermine trust,” said Serry.
“We continue to strongly support efforts to create conditions for the resumption of successful negotiations.”
Nearly 300,000 settlers now live in the West Bank, along with 2.2 million Palestinians.
Settlers have covered the territory – captured by Israel in 1967, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – with an increasingly intricate web of established communities and nearly 100 unauthorised hilltop outposts.